Photo by Brian Murphy for The Sports Capitol

Ovechkin's risky contract worked 1,000 times over

BY BRIAN MCNALLY | APRIL 2, 2018

They ride the elevator in silence, stone-faced, not a peep. Nothing in the young men’s manner suggests anything notable has happened.  

Alex Ovechkin is 22 years old. Nicklas Backstrom is 20. There are many happy and crushing days ahead they can’t yet see. Memorable moments and a string of devastating losses will come. Ovechkin will eventually marry. Backstrom will twice become a father. They will forever be intertwined for their work on the ice.

That’s in the future, though. None of it matters tonight. Ovechkin has just signed a 13-year, $124 million contract with the Washington Capitals, who announced it on stage during a meet-and-greet for an estimated 3,000 season-ticket holders at Verizon Center on a Thursday in January.

The elevator doors open onto the parking garage below the arena. Ovechkin and Backstrom say a polite goodnight to a reporter and walk wordlessly toward a car. They slide in, Ovechkin at the wheel, and the door shuts. For a beat, the hum of the empty garage is the only sound.   

But from behind tinted windows the quiet shatters. Ovechkin lets out a scream. He cackles and punches Backstrom in the shoulder. They shove each other and laugh and laugh at their fortune. The engine roars to life, then the car zips up the exit ramp and into the Washington night.

“It was like yesterday,” Ovechkin said this week.

Sunday, in a year of milestones, Ovechkin played his 1,000th career game when the Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Only 171 players have reached that mark. Ovechkin is just 32 years old with three years left on the mega-contract that he and his family, led by his mother, Tatiana, negotiated with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and signed on Jan. 10, 2008.

Ten years have passed in a blink. Ovechkin has 440 goals in the 755 games played since signing the deal. He has taken 3,616 shots and scored on 12.2 percent of them. He has 368 assists and 808 points. The Capitals have 462 wins. Ovechkin has scored the deciding goal 77 times. Together, they have three Presidents’ Trophies and six division titles. They have no Stanley Cups.

“It seems like every week there’s some famous guy that he’s passing for some ridiculous stat with hopefully still a few miles ahead of him,” Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “He’s at the point in his career where he still enjoys those accolades, but I think he’s bought-in more to the team system. Sometimes if you have to compromise those numbers for team success, I think he and his teammates would welcome that.”

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Nothing better explains the value the Caps have reaped from signing Ovechkin than his push for an eighth 50-goal season. He would be the oldest player to reach that mark since 1974. Only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy – nine times each — have hit 50 more than Ovechkin. Since signing his contract, he has added two Hart Trophies to the one he won the year he signed the extension, plus five more Rocket Richard Trophies to the one he earned that same year.

That was the season a young team suddenly gelled. Ovechkin scored 65 goals. Fans began showing up for midweek games against Edmonton and Ottawa and wearing red every night. That season also ended in heartbreak because of a Game 7 overtime loss to Philadelphia in the first round. But, more chances seemed a given.

That hope sprung from the contract announcement. Leonsis teased the crowd, saying media reports that the Capitals had signed Ovechkin to a six-year deal were wrong. He held the joke for a second before telling them it was really a 13-year contract. They exploded.  

“The place was ROCKING,” Backstrom said.

Everyone knew the risks. Leonsis was committing $124 million to a player who could get hurt, lose his passion for the game — or simply drop from his Hart Trophy level.

Ovechkin received a huge raise on his three-year, $11.5 million entry-level deal, but gave up the chance to become a free agent at least once and probably twice. He wasn’t even granted a limited no-movement clause until the second leg of the contact, which was broken into six years at $9 million and seven more at $10 million. The deal had critics. NBA commissioner David Stern was bewildered. He read the news and called Leonsis.

“Boy, you are going to live to regret this,” Stern told Leonsis. “I thought you were a smart guy and this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”

LISTEN TO TED LEONSIS ON SIGNING OVECHKIN TO A 13-YEAR CONTRACT:

Leonsis didn’t have much of an argument except that he believed in Ovechkin and needed a way to get fans into the building. The Capitals began talking about a five-year contract with the Ovechkins, according to Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick, but the thought of him hitting the free-agent market at 27 gnawed at them. Why let deep-pocketed teams like Toronto or the New York Rangers have a shot at signing him? So the Capitals began proposing a deal structured around eight years, even 10. The Ovechkins finally countered with 13. Leonsis and Patrick swallowed hard.

“That’s a jump and it was a big risk,” Patrick said. “Now, you can feel comfortable about it because he has [three] years left and even if he’s not as successful in the 12th or 13th years, I think we can honestly say that he’s been great for us. You look around and maybe we got lucky. They don’t always work out. That was quite a departure from how we generally like to do business, but we wanted to say he’s our guy. We wanted to make a statement to the fan base.”

Ovechkin reached 600 career goals March 12. He has been durable and reliable. He has steadily passed one Hall of Fame player after another to rank 19th all-time in goals. The Caps won the deal. The course of time proved Leonsis correct. Whether that was by design or divine intervention doesn’t really matter.

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Ovechkin’s play could slip. The history of aging wingers staying productive into their mid-30s isn’t good. But at this point, the worst-case scenarios have long passed. Ovechkin has never scored fewer than 32 goals in a full season or sustained a serious injury.

“It’s not something that you would do lightly or replicate on an ongoing basis,” Leonsis said. “But Alex, his entire family, his commitment that he was willing to make — we felt assured and comfortable that he would not take the contract for granted, that we would get our return in his effort.”       

The Capitals are constantly close to the salary cap, which makes keeping talent around Ovechkin a juggling act. Backstrom signed a 10-year contract in 2010 that ends in 2020, the year before Ovechkin’s. His cap hit is a steady $6.7 million.

“If you look at it, that’s the way the CBA works right now,” Backstrom said. “Teams, organizations want to build a core group maybe and that’s maybe why it’s so common these days that more guys stick with one team.”

But last summer, Washington had to let defenseman Karl Alzner go in free agency and traded forward Marcus Johansson for draft picks so it could give extensions to younger players like Evgeny Kuznetsov.

The Capitals have another big deal to consider this summer when defenseman John Carlson hits the open market at age 28. He could command between $7-8 million. That will be a tight squeeze, even with the cap expected to rise to around a reported $80 million. The current salary cap exposes the biggest flaw in the Ovechkin contract: it came at a time when long-term deals were en vogue in the NHL as a way to circumvent the cap. That no longer can happen.

The NHL outlawed such contracts after the 2013 season. The Caps chose not to go that route with Ovechkin, who will only be 35 when his deal expires. Leonsis always defended the contract’s length because future growth would carry other players well beyond Ovechkin’s deal. That hasn’t really happened.

Only seven players have a higher salary than Ovechkin, though he signed a decade ago. Only Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews ($10.5 million) and Los Angeles’ Anze Kopitar ($10 million) have bigger cap hits.

The salary cap rose 13 percent from $50.3 million to $56.7 million in 2008. Optimistic NHL front offices figured that would continue. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13 the cap number rose 39.6 percent to $70.2 million. But that was also the year of an NHL lockout when owners tried to regain control of spiraling costs. The cap dropped 8.3 percent in the first year of the new CBA in 2013-14 to $64.3 million. It’s taken four years of increases to reach the current $75 million (16.5 percent).

Washington’s front office, first under former general manager George McPhee and since 2014 under GM Brian MacLellan, has managed around Ovechkin’s cap hit for years, but it is getting more difficult. Having $9.5 million devoted to one player – even one as consistently productive as Ovechkin – magnifies each mistake.  

Orpik signed a five-year contract with a cap hit of $5.5 million in 2014. That has another year to go, but Orpik is 37 and plays third-pair minutes now. Oshie is signed for another seven years at a $5.75 million cap hit and his numbers have already dipped in his age31 season.

It’s questionable if the money is even there for Carlson, who leads all NHL defenseman in points. If it is, do the Capitals want to sign a defensemen well into his 30s or continue to shed talent? Ovechkin has lived up to his contract, but a team can only absorb so many losses. Backstrom and goalie Braden Holtby ($6.1 million cap hit) are up in the same year. That means little is assured beyond the next two seasons.  

A contract like Ovechkin’s is only tenable in that scenario if his play is on par with the league’s best. So far, it is. He hasn’t yet turned into a slow-footed power-play specialist. Ovechkin has 30 even-strength goals this season and 15 on the power play. That’s in line with his career norms.

Last year’s dip to a career-low 16 goals at even strength appeared ominous, but he’s quickly rebounded. Is this a dead cat bounce? Maybe. If healthy, Ovechkin still seems a good bet for a few more 30- or 40-goal seasons. But Ovechkin isn’t the same player he once was. The physicality and power that marked his game has been tempered. Some of that is his choice. Players learn they don’t have to pound their body night after night. They learn to work smarter.  

“He was pretty reckless the way he played in his early years,” said Orpik, who played against Ovechkin for 11 years with the Penguins.

Orpik added: “I think as you get older, you learn to pick your spots a little bit better.”

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Ovechkin hasn’t changed in one respect since that night in the car laughing with Backstrom. He still won’t look past the moment. Back then he was barely out of his teens with years in front of him. Now, his gray hair is more pronounced, his legs a little slower.

The talent pouring into the NHL every year is younger, faster, better. Ovechkin has 1,000 games behind him, but not 1,000 games to go. Neither he, nor Leonsis, are willing to look toward another extension or beyond this spring when the Capitals will once more enter the Stanley Cup playoffs, scarred by all the failures of the past, hopeful that this year, finally, will be different.

“If I take that time back, I would sign for 16 years if I would know the situation that happened,” Ovechkin said. “I’m happy I signed 13 years and I’m happy I’m staying here for three more years. But you never know what’s going to happen in the summer, how we’re going to play. What’s [MacLellan] going to do? What’s Ted going to do? You can see lots of changes coming up in the league. The most important thing for us is winning the Stanley Cup. And I want to win.”

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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